November General Meeting
a joint Meeting with the Planetary Society in the Prince Phillip Theatre
of the Melbourne University Physics Department.
Speaker: Professor David Norman Jamieson (standing in for Dr Nick Hoffman), on “The invasion of Mars 2004”, or more appropriately for Dr Jamieson’s specific field of interest, “Nuclear techniques of analysis in the search for water and life on the Red Planet”.
After the initial disappointment of not hearing Dr Nick Hoffman’s transitional arguments for the change from his ‘White (CO2 covered) Mars’ (refer ASV meeting June 2001) to a watery H2O ‘Wet Mars’, we quickly became fascinated with Dr Jamieson’s deep grasp of the subject of Mars exploration. Mars, more than any of our other planetary companions in the Solar System, has stimulated human imagination over the ages and it has a long and chequered history of exploration. We can trace it from Huygens’ first tentative sketches in 1670, through Shaparelli and Lowell’s interpretation of surface features, to the modern satellite mapping of the terrain. Using the popular press pictures of exploratory rover vehicles “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, David Jamieson led us into the technical problems facing scientists in settling the hotly disputed argument for and against the existence of water on Mars. No longer simply looking at surface features and historic erosion for evidence, the modern equipment is designed to analyse the molecular structure of the Martian material and provide conclusive proof of the presence of surface water at sometime in the past. These Rovers are not only incredibly versatile mobile communication machines, they are also scientific laboratories, fully fitted with a rock abrasion tool, an optical microscope, an x-ray spectrometer and a Mössbauer spectrometer. It all helps to read the history of the Martian material from the analysis of its chemical composition.
And what does Professor Jamieson do when he is not standing in for Nick Hoffman at an ASV presentation? Some of you may remember him from his last ASV talk in July 1999, when he talked about the energy spectrum of cosmic radiation, the “Hard Rain” falling on us from outer space. “We live in an exiting time”, he said then; ”there is still so much mystery to be explained. Human knowledge is again working towards a break-through in understanding physics, in magnitude comparable to the great upheavals at the end of last century”. Looking him up on the Internet we can see he is still fascinated by the interaction of the macro and the micro cosmos. He shows us, for instance, why magnetic forces do depend on who is measuring them. In a morphological look at the evolution of our understanding of the relativistic Lorentz contraction known as magnetism, he leads us from the Greek historian Pliny’s shepherd boy named Magnes through the pillars of physics to Einstein.
In-between publications he is putting new beads on the Abacus. As a Director (since 1996) of the Microanalytical Research Centre (MARC) in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne he heads a busy research group with major research interests in the fields of nanotechnology, especially quantum computer technology, and microanalysis. Australian researchers are part of a world-wide push to develop the first practical solid state quantum computer - a device that uses single atoms to store its memory and perform its calculations. As part of this effort, in close collaboration with colleagues at the University of New South Wales, researchers in Melbourne have devised a method of placing single phosphorus atoms in a block of ultra-pure silicon, so that they can be used as components in the tiny device. "Smallness is not the only goal," says Professor David Jamieson; "we are also after a computer that operates using the laws of quantum physics. This could result in a computer that performs some operations blindingly fast. But quantum laws only operate at very small scales," he says. "Quantum laws allow vastly complex calculations to be performed at speeds that are unthinkable with conventional computers”. The quantum computer can theoretically perform a massive number of tasks at the same time. This would enable it to search extremely large sets of data, doing tasks in an instant which would take a conventional computer thousands or millions of times longer. Applications for a quantum computer could include rapidly searching the human genome data base, with its many trillions of pieces of data, looking for a specific sequence, and most importantly, says Professor Jamieson, to model the quantum systems which 'drive' the entire universe. "Most of the fundamental physics that shapes our Universe are based on the rules of quantum mechanics."
Here again is where the very small links up to the very large; where an understanding of nano quantum physics helps us to provide answers to the macro cosmological questions that do not make sense in classical physics. In addition to his professional activities at the University of Melbourne, David Jamieson also serves as President of the Australian Institute of Physics, coordinating amongst other things activities for the Einstein International Year of Physics. Declared as such by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the year 2005 will be a celebration of the centenary of Einstein's miraculous year of 1905, physic-history’s second anno mirabilis (the first was 1667, the year of Newton’s awakening insight into the laws of Gravity, which he published later in the Principia in 1687).
The story of the exploration of Mars is as much about the history of the planet as it is about the accompanying evolution of technology. Such as the scientific technology to journey to Mars and safely land exploratory vehicles on the planet and reading the fingerprints left by cosmological evolution towards life in the molecular structure of its matter. We in the ASV are indeed very fortunate that we are given from time to time the opportunity to share in the creative output of such visionaries as Professor David Norman Jamieson.